17 The RAF

You went to war for 6 hours and you came back to clean sheets and ham and eggs

Waaf   I was posted to Regent’s Park.  It was ACR – Air Crew Receiving Centre, like for night vision, and so on.  Bentinck Close was our digs.  They said to me “What do you want to do?”  I said “I don’t know what I want to do.”  First of all I was put down as ACHGD – that’s anything. (1)   Like cleaning anything out.  Then this officer, she said “There’s a job here – you can either work in the cookhouse or you can work in the sick quarters!”  I thought to myself: I don’t fancy the cookhouse.  So I said “I’ll work in the sick quarters”, even though the sight of blood made me faint.

I was in sick quarters a couple of days and I see a Waaf who I knew – Flo Ward.  I knew Flo from before the war, because Mr Newton, who had a furniture shop in the Barking Road, used to be a tally man.  Our Mum used to get our clothes off him.  Flo used to measure me for my coats when I was little.  She was his buyer.  She was very brainy.  She was a typist and she bashed into me.  “Hallo Rene” she says.  “Oh Flo” I said “I’m working in sick quarters.  It ain’t half hard, cleaning all that place up.  I can’t stand it.”  Our sick quarters used to be Barbara Hutton’s house, the Woolworth’s heiress.  “‘Ere, look Reen,” she said “I’ll put you wise.  I’m doing typing and I know they want postal clerks.  Go in for that.”  “What can I do?” I said.   “Look” she said, “don’t put no make-up on – wash your face – and put on a sorrowful look and go and see the Waaf officer” – (‘cos I look sorrowful when I got no make-up on, sallow like).   I make an appointment don’t I?  I sees this Waaf officer. Left, right, left, right, left right.

“Yes, Airwoman, what do you want?”  “I’m working in sick quarters Ma’am, and it’s making me feel ill.  I can’t stand it.”  “Yes, you do look rather ill” she said, looking at me.  “Is there a trade you want to go in for?”  I thought:  I’m alright here.  “I would like to be a postal clerk” I said.  She phones up and I had to report down the Post Office at Holme House.  Down I goes there and I gets in with Kit, my old mate, and that’s how I started doing the post-office work.  I did it all through the airforce.

At Regent’s Park I used to come home every weekend on a 48 hour pass.  I used to bring all the Waafs home, didn’t I?  My mate and me were sort of ringleaders.  The girls used to say “Can we come with you and Kit, Reen?”  We used to stop coaches and get rides in them and bunk in everywhere – up Tottenham Court Road, all over.  We used to have a really good time.  She was a good mate to me, Kit was.  Honestly, I think people were more friendly then, than they are now.

The Corporal stands ’em all to attention.  “Waaf” he says, “Come Over here”

Our Roy, my Mum’s sister’s boy, he was a navigator in the RAF.  He was at Regent’s Park, and I was looking for him.  Me, I was permanent staff, but he was only there for aptitude tests.  I was looking out for him and all of a sudden I seen him marching along by Viceroy Court.  I said to my mate Kit “‘Ere, look – that’s our Roy over there!”  I shouted out “Roy! Roy!”  Course, as I’m shouting out all the Flight turns round, don’t they.  The Corporal stands ’em to attention.  “Waaf” he says “Come over here.”  I goes over and he dresses me down in front of the lot of them.  I didn’t half feel a fool.  “Don’t take the attention of my airmen.  You should know better, airwoman.”  Our Roy stood there and went all red.

rene raf_edited-1

From Regent’s Park I went down to Torquay.  I was stationed with the Canadians there.  I was two years down Torquay.  We were in the Grand Hotel, and being in the post office I used to collect all the mail.  I used to go from Paignton and Babbacombe.  We used to ride all the way around, with the Waaf drivers, picking the mail up.

The Canadian girls were very, very nice girls.  They were great big wenches and ‘cos of me being little they used to say “Come on, Kid, we’ll take you out for a drink” ‘cos they had a lot more money than we did.  I used to say to my mate “‘Ere, leave the window open, I’m going out with so and so tonight.”

Do you know who our Waaf officer was?  Know Attlee?  His daughter

I got away with murder myself. as far as discipline goes.  I used to come home in civvies. I used to have silk stockings on.  I was on a couple of charges, but I used to get out of it, me and my mate.  Do you know who our Waaf officer was?  Know Attlee? (2)   His daughter.  We used to have Domestic Night – one night a week you had to stop in and darn all your things, and all that, and then you had to have a kit inspection.

I was a rare one for walking about in me drawers – I never used to wear me trousers.  My mate and me, we used to pluck each others’ eyebrows and do our hair, and this Atlee, she used to say to me “Airwoman, every domestic night you’re always improperly dressed.”  I thought: you right cow.  Why shouldn’t I walk around in me drawers?   I enjoyed myself down in Torquay.  I signed on for another 6 months.  I done four and a half years in the RAF.

There was three strips there, and whether they like it or not, they had was to respect it, but occasionally you hear “Hallo Sambo” or another one he say “Eh, darkie” – “Snowball”.  All kinds of names

Airgunner, Sergeant  Before the war they might have seen the odd coloured people from the West Indies, but I don’t think they had seen them in such great number.   How can I put it?  There wasn’t – I don’t know if you could call it prejudice – we had a lot of questions thrown at us.  Different type of questions.  Some people say “Where’s your tail?”

In camp there was three stripe there, and whether they like it or not, they had was to respect it, but occasionally you hear “Hallo Sambo” or another one he say “Eh, darkie” – “Snowball.”  All kinds of names.  I was just that type of feller that I never take much notice of it.  I don’t care what a person wants to call me.  The only thing a person can do to me to make me retaliate is take me few coppers out of me pocket, otherwise I don’t care what he do.

There were a few in the camps who kept themselves distant.  You might have good friends in the camp – English friends – and when you go outside some of them act as if they don’t want to know you.  But then you have others, and you leave camp together and anywhere you go, they go.  They’re always there.   At the dances you get a little bit of jealousy, especially when you get to know most of the girls.  Some camps, like Henlow, used to have civilian dances. (3)    At Henlow I got to know plenty of Waaf, and around Henlow you’d meet other girls, visit their houses, and they expect me to go and dance with them.  You’re dancing and all of a sudden somebody tap you on the shoulder, and they say “Excuse me.”

This Yank just sweep the bar, swept off all the drinks, about six drinks off the bar.  He said “Niggers are not allowed in here”

With the girls, that was very sensitive with the Americans and the English lad.  It was very, very sensitive.  When I was at Henlow we used to go to Luton a lot, and the Americans had three bases around Luton.  You go the dance hall there and 90% of the people there would be American and they seemed to have all the girls that was going, while the others just stand as wall flowers.  Just looking.  So there was a lot of resentment with the Americans.  I can remember having a few arguments down at Luton.

There were two very big Americans – white lads – that I knew well.  They were stationed just outside Luton and we always meet when we go to Luton.  They had extra rations – double what we had – cigarettes – everything was double, even treble sometime.  I used to go back to the PX with them, and we used to go to dances together, we used to drink together – everything together.  We went to a pub one night.  The regular pub we used to go into.  We walk in and go to our table.  We had another Jamaican lad with me, but he was a much smaller lad, so he wants to show that he’s as big as anybody else.  He’s first to order the drink.  In comes three tremendously big Yanks, big white Yanks.  They walk up to the bar, just as this feller is about to pick up his drink and walk back to the table.

The Yank just sweep the bar, swept off all the drinks, about six drinks, off the bar.  He said “Niggers are not allowed in here.”  He didn’t say anything.  He re-ordered the drinks.  They done the same thing again.  The bartender – I think he was scared – he didn’t want to get involved.  Well myself and the other Yanks and two girls was sitting at the table, and one of the white Yanks at the table, he’s shouting “Re-order the drinks again.”

He re-ordered and the bartender serve him the drinks.  The Yank gets up from the table, walks over and stands behind the Jamaican lad.  The other Yank means to do the same thing again, but this other Yank catches his hand and stopped him.  He said “What do you want to do that for?  His money is as good as yours.”  He said “Niggers are not allowed here.”  “What part of the State are you from?”  He said “Texas.”  “How long have you been here?”  “Oh,” he said “we’re just coming in.”   “Well,” he said ” have you ever had to chase a bullet up your backside?”  These Yanks at our table had just come back from the Front.  They just get their leave, and these others are coming straight from America.  “If you want to see my wound, it’s here.”  He said “I didn’t know it was your friends.”  “Yes, they are my friends, and you’ll pay for the drinks you’ve tipped over.”  They bought their drinks and came over to our table and we was the best of friends after that.

These Yanks and we was like a pea in a pod.  Once we leave camp we never go anywhere without them.  For we had to get the bus from Henlow to Luton, or we go down to Hitchen and get the train.  But these Yanks, they used to come down with their jeep and pick us up, and take us down there.  I was there six months and I can’t remember ever spending a pound.  It was the most money I ever had since I joined the airforce, for I didn’t spend a penny.  They were doing all the paying.

The only regret I ever had was that I never had the opportunity of being in an operation

I was an air gunner but all the time I was on stand-by.  I’ve seen it all – I’ve seen the planes take off, I’ve seen it come back, I’ve seen the dead come back, I’ve seen the wounded come back, I’ve seen the plane come back shot up, come back on one engine, come back on half a wing, and I’ve never gone.  It might sound funny, but that’s the one regret I have.  I never went on an operation.

Between Henlow and Lincoln there was two Bomber Command stations, which was about three miles apart.  I’ve seen three – four hundred Lancasters take off each night.  You haven’t got time to fall asleep, from 3 o’ clock every morning until half past two or three next day.  It’s a mass of noise from taking off.  Then you have an hour in between, where you get a little lull – they disappearing.  But as soon as they disappearing you have another loud noise.  When you look up at the sky it’s full of plane from another base, heading in the same direction.  I’ve seen forty, fifty, sixty of them come back, shot up, twenty-five missing, and you have to run down as they’re coming in, pulling dead bodies out and helping the wounded to get out, and sometime, as soon as they’re landing they’re exploding.  When I used to talk about my not flying they used to say “What you’re doing is just as important as what they’re doing up there.”  But I said “I trained for up there, so why put me down here?”

The first time someone shot at us in anger – and they happened to be Americans – I got the fright of my life.  I was in the foetal position, making myself as small as I can

Bomb Aimer  After you’d finished your training they put you in a big room – fifty pilots, fifty navigator, fifty air bombers, a hundred air gunners, fifty engineers – and they let you mix for a couple of days.  Then they came in and said “Who’s the crews?” and they marked them all down.  I don’t know how the other crews picked themselves, but I know how we picked ourselves.  We were all Scotsmen, more or less.

MacNamara came up to me and said “I’ve got a feller from Aberdeen in the rear turret and a feller from Galashiels in the mid upper – do you fancy joining us?”  “Aye, alright.”  We couldn’t find a navigator who was Scottish so we picked a Geordie.  We got an Australian – Lowry – as a wireless operator and a Cockney as a flight engineer.  We didn’t get on too well with him, but if you don’t work together you’ve had it.  There’s no question about that.  There’s no-one there to see if you’re doing it right or doing it wrong.  You’ve just got to work together.

Being aircrew you all had to be reasonably intelligent, so that was different.  Everything was different in aircrew – the whole set-up.  You went to war for six hours and you came back to clean sheets and ham and eggs.  No one else did.  There was a Waaf who used to serve us our ham and eggs.  She was beautiful but no-one would touch her with a bargepole.  She’d been engaged to different guys.  Every time she got engaged to one, he died.  That was quite a thing in this modern day – the superstition of aircrew: never turning back, for instance.  You never turned back if you’d forgotten a map.  Anything.  Another one was, if someone had bought it and their clothes were lying around, you grabbed them – their trousers, their jackets – anything – on the theory that it wouldn’t happen to you.  Do you know what we had?  Most of  my crew were Catholic, and we used to have a priest come and give us the Last Rites.  I used to hate that.

I never dropped a bomb in my life

We were a protection society for the rest of the main force – try to kid the Germans on the main force wasn’t coming their way.  It was a hell of a job.  Airborne Cigar was one of them.  There was only one squadron of you, so it’s hard for them to find you.  You would go up and switch your navigation lights on.  You used silver paper all the time.  The idea was it would show up on their radar and you would time it, say when you’ve left the coast.  The silver paper was in long sheets, about eight foot I suppose, but it was folded and you ripped it and pushed it down a chute.  It opened up, as it got out of the aircraft.  Each silver strip would look like an aircraft in their radar.  Everybody, say at 10 o’ clock, would for four minutes throw out silver paper at the rate of one a minute, and as you got nearer the coast you kept throwing out more and more and more.  This would attract their fighters.  Once their fighters were up in the air looking at happy valley – that’s Nuremburg and all the other places – the main force would go for Berlin, and they couldn’t divert these aircraft up to Berlin.  They hadn’t the fuel.  It was quite a good idea, but I don’t think it worked very well. But the worst trips we had, and they were absolutely horrible, was to go out and sit along the coast, and do nothing.

The only thing the crew hoped was that I wasn’t the second pilot when the pilot died

We were based way out at Wells-on-Sea – North Creake – near Fakenham in Norfolk.  We used to go up to 20,000 feet and circle for six hours round our own arse.  Round and round and round.  We had three wireless operators in the aircraft and they jammed the radar of the Germans, so you had a complete screen from Denmark to France.  The idea was that when the main force broke through the screen the Germans only had time from the coast to the target to get their fighters up.  Oh, but that was agony.

One night a Focke Wulf came up and saw us going round and round.  This was just off Denmark.  We’re watching this Focke Wulf looking at us, saying “Jesus Christ, we’ve had it now.”  A Focke Wulf had 20 mm canon with a range of about a mile and we’ve got these wee pee-shooter machine guns.  They shoot a lot of bullets, but they don’t go very far.  But he buggered off and let us all clean our pants up.  It’s frightful you know.

The first time someone shot at us – and they happened to be American – I got the fright of my life.  I was in the foetal position, making myself as small as I can.  I looked at my mate Eddie and said “For fuck’s sake, let’s no do this any more.  It’s alright for a joke, but let’s chuck it now.”

I would normally have been an air bomber, but in this group we had no bombs to drop, so I became second pilot, second air gunner, second everything.  I was running up and down the plane like a blue-arsed fly.  The only thing the crew hoped was that I wasn’t second pilot when the pilot died.  I used to fly it home and they’d say “For Christ’s sake, you’re making us seasick.”

Your chances run out.  Your courage runs out.   I went away for three months

They did a Catch 22 on my crew.  It had gone on too bloody long.  It was during my first tour.  They said to us “If you do another ten we’ll give you a long leave.”  And then it was “If you do another five trips we’ll give you an even longer leave” and it was going on and on and I said “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”  Your chances run out.  Your courage runs out. They said “You can go away.”   I went away for three month, up to the Highlands, and I never came back until D-day.

His Wife   Within a year of one another your Mother and Father died.  I hadn’t met you very long and I can remember you phoning from Ma Simpson’s, speaking to this Adjutant.  He wouldn’t believe that your Father had died.  You were shouting down the phone “But my Father’s dead!”

Bomb Aimer  It was the LMF thing.  (4)  I had a cold once and this doctor started looking at me.  I said “Look, I’ve got sinus and it’s bloody sore.”  You’re locked in this light pressure at 20,000 feet and you come into heavy pressure – it starts getting to your head.  But no.  They begin to look at you funny, and start to ask questions about how you feel about flying.  You can’t say “I feel fucking awful about it.”  No.  It’s “I feel alright.”

His Wife   I knew a guy who was recorded as Lack of Moral Fibre.  They shoved him up in an aeroplane.  Every time they put him in a plane he went into hysterics, and they wrote him off: “Lack of Moral Fibre”.  It was written across his brain.  Every time he talked to you it finally came up in conversation.

Bomb Aimer   One thing about the airforce, and I believe it was true of all the services, you were fighting some nebulous thing.  Few Britons were fighting a personal war…. You had to get the likes of the Poles and the Czechs, in Fighter Command, for instance, who knew what it was all about, what they were fighting for.  They never mention about the Poles and the Czechs in the Battle of Britain.  They were the ones who really got tore into it.  They knew what the war was about.  We didn’t.

I enjoyed my first flight.  I really did enjoy it

Flight Engineer  I passed out as a Flight Engineer on Stirlings and I got sent to Waterbeach. (5)     It was a 16/51 Heavy Conversion Unit, Waterbeach. They usher you into a room and in that room you find lots of other aircrew.  All these other aircrew are already a crew – mostly Wellington and Whitby crews – twin engined bombers, and they’re looking for an engineer.  You milled around and spoke to various crews – I don’t know how it happened – but you finished up with a crew.  They’d all flown before, though not necessarily in operations.  My crew had been flying together for some months on Wellingtons, although they hadn’t done any operational flying.  We were being converted to four engined bombers.

I was a right sproggy.  I hadn’t done any flying whatsoever.  I knew the theory but I’d never seen the inside of a Stirling.  So I get in it and there are two instructors.  One for the pilot and one for the engineer.  They’re called screen pilot and screen engineer.  They cover you in fact.  My instructors really looked old to me – he must have been all of thirty!  He said “My God, they must be robbing the bloody cradles!”  I was twenty.

I enjoyed my first flight.  I really did enjoy it.  My instructor taught me a hell of a lot.  He was a real stickler.  He insisted I wore all my gloves – which was three pairs: silk, wool and leather.  He insisted I wore my goggles on my forehead, above my eyes.  All around his eyes he had a scar.  He’d fought a fire on a Stirling and he’d pulled his goggles down and that saved his eyes.  The chamois leather had burnt off the frame, and the frame metal had burnt into his face. He said “I may have a scar around my eyes, but I’ve still got my eyesight, and I’ve still got my fingers.”

Then we did what were called familiarisation – circuits and landings, or “circuits and bumps” in airforce jargon.  After not many hours – six in fact – we were fit enough to go out on our own.  They loaded you up with a heap of dummy bombs and they send you out on what they call a loaded climb.  We were then posted to Mildenhall, to a squadron.  The Flight Commander took Jack, the pilot, and I up – just the two of us, to see how we coped on Stirlings.  He passed us as being fit for flying on Ops.  We did some operational climbs, taking off and landings and then they suddenly decided that we were going to convert to Lancasters.  They sent us  after Christmas, 1943 to Feltwell –  No.3 Lanc. Finishing School at Thetford in Norfolk.  The conversion course was a matter of hours.

Compared to a Stirling, a Lancaster was a beautifully simple aircraft from an engineer’s point of view.  On a Stirling there were fourteen petrol tanks and you could have four in use at any time or six in use.  To change tanks you had great big levers you pulled and you pushed.  It was like being on a ship.  It was really grim.  The Lancaster in comparison was very simple, although all aircraft have got things wrong with them, and these were pointed out to us.  We were now ready to fly ops.

Lanc photo 4x6006

Nobody could explain to you what flying on an Op was like.  Nobody could really tell you what to expect.  Jack had done one trip, just before our first Op, called a “second dicky”.  He got taken up to be shown what it was like.  The rest of us hadn’t done any operational flying at all, so we didn’t know what to expect.  When we were ready to fly we had a lecture from a chappie who had escaped from a German prison.  He’d got back to this country, like many airmen.  We were escape orientated.  We all carried escape kits: compasses, and so on – not because the RAF were doing us a favour, but because we’d cost so much to train that we were supposed to try and get back.

The first trip we did was to Essen and I must admit, I was dead scared.  Every time I saw a great big bright light I shut my eyes.  If I’d only known, it was the easiest trip we ever had, or were ever likely to get.  It was a very, very cloudy night and all these bright lights I kept seeing were the reflections of bombs flashing back on the clouds, or searchlights playing under clouds.  It was nothing – but you don’t know what to expect.  I was supposed to keep a log every fifteen minutes – logging engine temperature of four engines, logging oil temperature, speed, boost – a heap of stuff.  Well, you don’t.  You’re dead scared.  You don’t want to know.  It was a big laugh when  I went back next morning and I said I’d lost my log book, because obviously they knew – first time out everybody lost their log!

The second trip we did was Nuremberg, which was the worst air battle of the lot – but we didn’t know that, did we?  We had nothing to compare it with

It was a running battle from the time we crossed the Channel.  We didn’t know, though, that this was unusual.  Other crews would, but this was only our second trip.  By the time we got to Nuremberg we were shattered.  You didn’t need a navigator.  You could navigate by the combats going on ahead of you and by the aircraft burning on the ground. We were shattered.  There’s no other word for it.  We hadn’t lost our morale – we were all doing our jobs – but we were scared.  Dead scared.  We had logged 32 aircraft going down until Jack said “Pack it up”.  I remember him swearing at a Lancaster which was going down in flames – he wanted it to blow up because the longer it kept in flames the easier it was for other people to see us.  And Jack was normally a very mild sort of man.  We buckled our parachutes on, which I never did again.

We took a vote because the rear turret wouldn’t work, whether we should turn back or not.  It was the skipper’s decision, but we always reckoned that as we were flying as a crew we should vote.  We all voted to go on.  Over the target two Junkers 88’s attacked us.  We were sitting ducks.  The wireless operator got down on his hands and knees and prayed to Christ.  He had the intercom on, and it came over the intercom.  Who knows?  It might have had some effect because they sheared off and shot down people either side of us.

Back we had a quite trip.  Sharma the navigator, who was a crack navigator, reckoned we were over Brest, which was a heavily defended area.  There was a hell of a lot of searchlights which made us think it was Brest.  We got quite a scare.  We were busy shoving out “Window”, the stuff that puts their radar off, and we had a gadget which messed their searchlights up.  It had no effect whatsoever.

We thought, any minute now they’re going to open up and blow us out of the sky

I’d let a tank run dry – which shows what state we were in panic wise, and I had trouble restarting the engine, and that engine ran the radar set.  Suddenly, the searchlights started crossing – to-ing and fro-ing – and it was Manston, Kent.  Not Brest at all.  I always remember feeling – I don’t know what the word was….  Besides anything else, we were also out of fuel.  The winds we had been told to expect were wrong and we had been flying against headwinds.

Manston was not only a fighter base but also an emergency landing space for bombers.  You could get several aircraft down at once in that place.  That was the whole idea of it.  As we were coming in to land there was a chappie coming in hard behind us and he was listing what was wrong with his aircraft.  Terrible things – he couldn’t get his wheels down; he had so much shot away from behind; he had so many crew members dead – I thought “Christ Almighty, what have we got to complain about?”  He was asking for the fire engines and all the usual appliances.

I never really knew what happened to him because the following morning we were able to fuel up again and take off.  The place was littered with bombers, all round.  When the news came on they said 70 aircraft were lost, which of course was wrong.  A lot more than 70 were lost.  (6)    When we got back to our airfield and looked down at the aircraft there was very few of them around.  We thought most of them had been wiped out, but like us they’d landed elsewhere.

We were really shattered.  We thought if this was going to be like this, we haven’t got a chance in hell

Nuremberg took us six hours forty-five minutes, from take-off to return.  Lots of people used to reckon the Germans knew we were coming.  It seems obvious, but I can’t really believe the allegations that they had been informed by our own Intelligence.  You wouldn’t have sent that many aircraft would you.  700 was a hell of a size force.  (7)    You’d have sent a smaller force.  They’ve slain this book that says the Nuremberg raid was leaked.  They say his facts are all up the creek. (8)   But we were really shattered. We thought if it was going to be like this, we haven’t got a chance in hell.  As it happens, we were one of the few crews in our squadron to complete a tour.

Nuremburg log book003_edited-1

Each aircraft had its own ground crew, and each ground crew had an NCO – a corporal – in charge.  Ours was Corporal Tich Yates.  There were so many aircraft to a wing, and over that wing there would be a Flight Sergeant, a chiefy, as we called him.  He would be in charge of all the ground crew.  We were out on dispersal – not altogether, but in a pancake, apron, call it what you will.  The ground crew used to dig holes in the ground and make all sorts of shelters.  They almost used to live out there, alongside the aircraft!  Our particular lot had lost so many crews, they hadn’t had any time to develop any feeling for the people they were servicing aircraft for.

We had a very old Lancaster.  It had already done Ops and been used for training when it came to us, but it was a fantastic aircraft – T for Tommy, LM443.  We survived one, two, three, four, five trips and they realised that the way things were going, they could well have a crew.  There was a fantastic feeling, fantastic comradeship growing up between us and them.  Aircrews and ground crews didn’t always get on so well together.  So much so that when we had an air test, the corporal or one of the chaps used to fly with us, because if they had done a rotten job and they knew they were going to have to fly in it, they’d make sure they did a good job.  So it was standard practice that one always had to come, but with our lot, they all wanted to come!  In fact we had an armourer who was boss-eyed.  He was dead keen to fly and Jack used to get out of the seat when we were airborne and this chappie used to fly.

In an aircrew you were like a family.  That was the whole idea

You’ve got to know how the other will react. On a trip there was very little said.  All this stiff upper lip touch is a bit overdone but there isn’t much said because if you do, someone could be saying something that’s absolutely trivial when something happens and somebody’s got to be able to hear what another person is saying.  So normally there’s nothing said.  The pilot goes through all the crew. Calls them up, makes sure they’re all there, all OK.  The only time anybody speaks is if you’re being attacked.  It’s usually the gunner who speaks.  I might break the silence to say I’m having trouble with a particular engine, or the wireless operator, who might receive a wind being broadcast.

We lived together as a crew, in the same billet, until Jack got his commission and moved out.  It didn’t make any difference for when we weren’t flying together we were eating together or drinking together in Cambridge.  Everything we did was together.  Jack was from British Columbia.  He was very quiet spoken, but Bob Brigham, our bomb aimer, was from Toronto and he was as different again.  All he did was gamble, gamble, gamble.  They used to have much better uniforms than we did.  Better tailored.  At that time airmen didn’t have battledress, only aircrew had battledress.  We had buttons on our battledress.  They had a zip.  Bob came home one night – early one morning – undid his zip and pound notes cascaded out.  He’d been playing craps.

You couldn’t pack it in and say “I don’t want to fly anymore, please” could you?

Before an Op there were rituals like peeing on the tail-wheel, and you’d joke such as “You haven’t got a chance in hell tonight with your lot”.  Or “You’ll find that bloody aircraft won’t see you back for breakfast.”   Or “You’re for the chop tonight.”  It was said all the time, even if someone was killed.  You just carried on.  If you didn’t joke there was dead quietness.  In the American airforce you could suffer from what was called “Combat Fatigue”.  In the airforce you suffered from “Lack of Moral Fibre”, which was stamped across your paybook, all your documents – LMF, and you’re stripped of your rank.  And this could lead to trouble because you might have a crew member who was going round the twist and in doing so was endangering the rest of the crew.

We all had our own personal mascots.  I had a little airman my wife gave me.  Jack, as he came from British Columbia, had an Indian totem pole.  There was only one crew member who used to leave a “last letter”.  For us to leave a last letter was considered bad luck.  It was asking for it.  You couldn’t pack it in and say “I don’t want to fly anymore, please”, could you?  We were dead scared but on our third trip I don’t think we thought “I wonder what’s going to happen to us?”  Our third trip was eleven days afterwards, to Laon in France.  That was a railway marshalling yard.

The only time when we were on Ops I can remember about people as such, as distinct from cities and industries, was when we were going to Essen.  Our Intelligence Officer was giving us all the old madam and then he said “You’ll be arriving when they’re changing shifts”.   That was about the only time I ever thought exactly what we were going to do.  We were not only going to bomb a factory and its plant, we were also going to bomb two lots of work people, and among those work people were probably Russians, French, apart from the Germans.  He actually mentioned people, instead of aiming points, which was usual.

In Frankfurt the Post Office was being use as the aiming point.  That was getting near Christmas.  A great joke – it’s bound to be full of goodies for the troops out in Russia.  It’s going to lower their morale.  People weren’t talked of.  It was aiming points and targets.  You didn’t think, did you?  It was orientated that way.  It was like aerial combat.  The first time I saw a German fighter in the moonlight I was fascinated.  I wasn’t scared at all.  You didn’t think of the man sitting there who was trying to get a bead on you.  You thought of the machine, not the man.

I.   Aircraft Hand – General Duties

2.  Clement Attlee,  Labour wartime deputy Prime Minister, and Prime Minister 1945 – 1951.

3.  Henlow, Bedfordshire.

4.  LMF: Lack of Moral Fibre

5.   Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire

6.   96 bombers, not 70, were shot down.

7.  The figure was almost 800, not 700.

8.  The Nuremberg Raid by Martin Middlebrook, Allen Lane. 

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